A few thoughts on community and covid-19
… who buries his head in the sand – nor every human who parks his skull in a similarly dark place – dies as a result. That doesn’t mean either approach is a good strategy in a crisis.
Point One. This may not feel like an occasion to count blessings, but there might be no more important time to do so. That’s because we live in circumstances of remarkable safety – from disasters, war, crime and pestilence. According to author Steven Pinker ("The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined"), the human world has simply never been safer generally. And we in this Valley enjoy the nearly risk-free best of that world.
We are very lucky, because that safety has been built on the brains, shoulders and backs of others who put us in these favored positions – we may have helped, but our accidents of birth, capabilities, opportunities and good fortune are plainly just that: an incredible string of luck.
We are also fortunate to live in community with each other – we can depend on each other. Most of the time, that’s pretty effortless. We obey red lights, pay taxes, and maybe even volunteer in ways that contribute to the Common Good. These are baseline duties we owe each other, in recognition that nobody goes it alone, or has to.
Sometimes, not going it alone means that more is required – that we extend a hand or take extra precautions to ensure that no harm comes to others. That could be considered a burden, but it is also an opportunity – it’s all in how you choose to look at it. If you’ve ever gotten a little kick out of doing some small thing directly for someone else, then this is a chance to get that same kind of kick, directly or indirectly.
As an aside, I sometimes wonder whether life is maybe too easy, hereabouts. In my daughter’s Vermont environs, ‘community’ means a lot more. Her household has a tractor, someone else a chain saw, another one a splitter, and voila: firewood for all. Her husband ascribes some of the credit to the often-harsh weather conditions – people need to know that they can depend on each other, and they practice.
He may be right – I do know that I miss that sense of togetherness, all up and down my street and neighborhood. Proximity is not the same as community. When we need firewood, we get it at Safeway, or we rent a power saw from Cresco, or advertise on Next Door to pay someone to come split it. Something important is lost in this atomized way of living.
So, in our region’s current pandemic emergency, we are all – both the more-and-less vulnerable - asked to curtail activities, the better to slow the spread of contagion and keep it within the limited capacities of our health care system. But is there more you might do? Is there an elderly neighbor who might be checked-with? Or someone with a frail immune system for whom you might brave the rough-and-tumble of Costco? Could you reassure a couple that if they’re both hospitalized, you’ll look after their pets? The things we can do for each other are bounded only by our imaginations in getting outside of ourselves.
Now is a very good time to do so. And those good little kicks await.
Point Two. Expertise matters - somebody always knows more than you do – and it’s time to rely on them. It may be fashionable in some quarters to doubt ‘the elites’ – to believe that any one person’s opinion is as valuable as another’s, especially if it’s loud. That just ain’t so. As the world becomes ever more complex and interrelated, the role of expertise only grows more important, not less. We rely on ignorant or self-interested perspectives at our increasing peril – and in this pandemic, ignorant reliance can be fatal – to you and others. In good times, we can be wrong without consequence, but not now.
There’s an important 2018 book that bears on our current situation – it’s been largely overlooked. In ‘The Fifth Risk’, author Michael Lewis* (‘Moneyball’, ‘The Big Short’) discusses the hollowing-out of government. Those in power have compromised our government’s role as a source of safety and contributor of community. He argues that expertise and forward planning are crucial in those functions – and that both are currently at-risk.
Lewis focuses on DOE, USDA and Commerce, but those lessons are front-and-center in our current health crisis. A government eviscerated, where expertise is derided, ignored or excised, cannot govern. That leaves us all exposed. The author excoriates the current administration for its clear record of deep dis-interest in actually governing (that includes pandemic prep). There is no question that it has left us all exposed to crises, and it is statistically certain that there will be crises.
Government can be called Bureaucracy, or The Swamp, or worse – but it contains our capacity as a people to respond to contingencies. A year ago, Dr. Fauci might’ve been attackable as some deep-state, pointy-head on the cushy dole from us all – but who among us wants to be without his deep knowledge now? Would you really prefer the ‘savant’ whose primary credential is an uncle who may have worked at MIT?
This is a time for humility about what we don’t know, and renewed respect for those who’ve invested their life’s work in actually knowing it.
And Point Three. Panic and Preparation are not synonymous. We can laugh and point at “bath tissue” hoarders (although as for me, I’ve laid-in a considerable stash of coffee). Some of the runs we’re witnessing have little to do with the, uh, runs. But at the same time, who would argue with the wise adage ‘prevention beats cure’? If ridicule of hoarders leads you to fail to plan to offset your own looming shortages, then Aesop has a fable for your consideration. Those hoarders are, after all, at least trying to get ready for certain inevitabilities.
Our world of uber-convenience doesn’t favor planning – normally, Amazon can have it (whatever it is) here tomorrow, for free. Except not now. Every frivolous trip puts you at-risk, along with everyone else you contact and/or care about. Time to hunker down, and planning is a crucial element in hunkering.
You find out what people are made-of not when times are good, but when they’re hard and stressful – when folks are under pressure. This is ultimately a plea to strengthen our community bonds, to dig-out and not bury our best selves in the sands of this crisis.
Good luck, stay home and be well!
* The NY Times suspended its weekly book podcast this week, and substituted-in their coverage of The Fifth Risk from 10/2018. Link: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/13/books/review/from-the-archives-michael-lewis-and-tana-french.html?action=click&module=Briefings&pgtype=Homepage